Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lady Godiva rides again

©2012 Battling BARE
Broken by battle
Wounded by war
My love is forever
To you this I swore
I will quiet your silent screams
Help heal your shattered soul
Until once again, my love
You are whole

This is the poem written on Ashley Wise’s back (see photo left).  It’s also the message written on the skin of every woman who participates in Battling BARE.

Battling BARE is the brainchild of Wise, whose husband Rob, an NCO (non-commissioned officer) of the 101st Airborne Division, suffered/still suffers(?) from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  “At the point in which the idea for our first BB pic came,” Wise writes on the group’s website, “soldier suicide was a weekly occurrence—a friend’s husband had actually just ended his own life a few weeks before, my husband had hit a wall after hearing about his former platoon mate snapping in Afghanistan …, a few weeks later he lost one of his own soldiers from overdose.”

Things came to a head when Sgt. Wise locked himself in a hotel room with a few weapons.  Ashley tried to get help from the Army’s Family Advocacy Program, but “In my instance, … words and intents were twisted,” and Sgt. Wise was jailed and charged with domestic assault, which could have led to a dishonorable discharge and the end of his career.  As she told Business Insider’s Robert Johnson, the Army was “preparing to make her and Rob the ‘civilian sector’s problem.’”  (Sergeant Wise now works with Ft. Campbell’s Warrior Transition Battalion as a staff member.)

Torn between the temptation to give up on her marriage and the obsession to get back the man she’d married, Ashley was briefly tempted to “streak” the Screaming Eagles’ command building to get the division commander’s attention.  Instead, she had the above picture taken, created a Facebook page, and got more of her friends at Ft. Campbell to join her quest.

The page went viral almost overnight.

©2012 Battling BARE
Now, Wise’s effort begs comparison to PETA’s approach to selling vegetarianism … at least, if you haven’t seen the pictures.  Once you’ve seen the pictures, though, you know the difference is the same as that between chalk and cheese, as the British say.  Calah Alexander of Patheos’ Barefoot and Pregnant writes of Wise’s own photo:

This image is a more powerful portrayal of the marital union than anything I’ve seen come out of our culture.  The words themselves are straight out of traditional marital vows.  In sickness and in health.  Till death do us part.  And she wrote them on her bare back, the unclothed body that belongs to her husband alone.  It’s strikingly vulnerable, and her pose, the universally recognized position of surrender, places the whole thing in an obvious military context.  She’s giving herself up, not to defeat, but to the consumption of the masses.  She’s offering up her own love and devotion to her husband, exposed on the flesh that he alone is familiar with.
But then there’s her husband’s machine gun [technically a semi-automatic rifle] and his patrol cap.  The contrast between the inherent violence of those two objects and the inherent vulnerability of her unclothed feminine figure is an extremely powerful part of the image. … It says that as husband and wife, as one flesh, she carries the violence of war as well.  It’s as much a part of her life as she watches him struggle to come to grips with it, as she desperately tries to find ways to help him, as it is his.  The fact that she’s the one holding the gun and wearing his cap also shows her determination to fight for him, to shoulder the load that he can’t, to take up arms to protect him just as he took up arms to protect our country.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a way of showing us that underneath the fatigues and the guns, soldiers are human beings.  Vulnerable human beings.

A widow and daughter. ©2012 Battling BARE
Alexander continues, “I don’t often think of soldiers as vulnerable.”  Neither do soldiers.  The military is an overwhelmingly masculine institution, to such an extent that the values it encodes even affects women in uniform.  Vulnerability = weakness, the soft spot in your armor that enemy forces and weapons can penetrate to defeat you.  To win, you not only have to dominate but also be indomitable.  Injured, in pain, grief-stricken?  Suck it up; there’s a war on, and your buddies are counting on you … don’t let them down.  For want of a nail, and all that.  Men don’t like to admit they need emotional help and support; like Sgt. Wise, they’ll verge on suicide before they’ll let themselves be vulnerable in that particular manner.

©1945 Henry Holt and Co.
[Slight correction for the sake of accuracy:  At some times — especially during artillery barrages and other attacks where the soldier can only hunker down and wait it out — nothing obsesses the soldier's mind so much as does his vulnerability.  Or as Bill Mauldin's GI Willy puts it, he really begins to feel "a fugitive from th' law of averages".]

 “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).  In this one phrase, St. Paul captures the paradox of the human condition just as Aristotle did by saying, “I must be the wisest man in the world, for I alone know that I know nothing.”

Man’s true weakness is his pride.  As creatures, without God we have nothing, are nothing, and do nothing; as social animals, we are dependent on economic and emotional interconnections that are innumerable, subtle and complex.  We are constantly and continually subject to conditions and events that are beyond our personal control; even those people whom the cynical would deem the puppet-masters of society are themselves at the mercy of people, institutions and actions they can do nothing about.  We are vulnerable; we are weak.

But we are not alone.  “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18).

John Collier, Lady Godiva (1897)
As the Wises’ own story demonstrates, military spouses and families aren’t always sufficient to help a soldier heal from PTSD.  But families are also the most basic connection a soldier has to the community s/he serves, as well as his/her best guarantor of emotional health.  The official structure has always been reluctant to admit any responsibility for military dependents, considering (not unreasonably) that they only enlisted the soldier, not his family, and counting themselves generous for allowing dependents free healthcare and access to the PX.  This attitude is changing, and will continue to change … but slowly, very slowly.

As for Ashley Wise and Battling BARE, I’m somewhat reminded of Lady Godiva, who according to Anglo-Saxon legend rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest her husband’s oppressive taxation.  Wise has gotten the attention of the 101st and the rest of the nation with a movement that has its own moving beauty: Women and families showing their vulnerability to pledge fidelity and love to those whose wounds are not of the flesh but of the spirit.

Rob and Ashley, I salute you.  Semper Fi.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.  But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
—John Milton, “On His Blindness”